Nov 15 2009

How to Communicate with Agents and Editors

When you’re ready to submit your novel or comic book to an agent or publisher, these tips will help you make the sell.

1.  The only goal of your submission is to convince a publishing professional that your novel or comic book is likely to sell thousands of copies. Nothing else matters.

2.  Follow the instructions on their website. Most agents and publishers will have submissions pages that lay out what they want to see.  In most cases, it’s best to provide just what’s on the list and nothing else.  (Exception: if you’re submitting a comic book script, consider submitting some inked or colored pages even if they aren’t required– these pages will help the editor decide very quickly whether your proposal is serious).

3.  Check your spelling, punctuation and grammar. Trying to impress a publishing professional without clean writing is like trying to run a filthy restaurant.  It really doesn’t matter how good the cooking is–customers will run out screaming anyway.  Proofread or perish.  Not many publishing professionals would bet tens of thousands of dollars on an unpolished writer.

4.  A first-time novelist MUST finish the manuscript before submitting it for publication. An experienced author can pitch a concept, but an unpublished novelist can’t.  Don’t bother trying to write to publishers or agents until your manuscript and synopsis are ready.  Comic book writers, you probably need the script and series synopsis for the first issue finished before you can submit.  Each publisher has different requirements, though, so check first.  For example, Image requires illustrated sample pages but no scripts.  In contrast, Dark Horse requires only the first eight pages scripted for a series and a synopsis, but no art.

5.  This is a business proposal, so be as specific about your target audience as possible. What is the age of your ideal reader?  Gender?  Are there any other significant demographic traits?  (Note: comic book writers, be aware that most comic book buyers are males between 15-30 years old– publishers may be leery about working with significantly different demographics).  Many authors are leery about giving themselves a target audience because they feel like it’ll limit the appeal.  “If I say my novel’s audience is guys between 8 and 13, what if it turns out that high school girls also want to read it?”  Don’t worry about it.  Stating your target audience is primarily important so that the publisher/agent can evaluate whether you have a realistic idea of who your main audience is.  This is what Image Comics says about target audiences:  “Tell us who the target audience is (‘Everyone’ is NOT realistic — there’s no single book on the market today that everybody buys).”  The same goes for novels as well–perhaps two novels out of a million have an almost universal appeal, like Harry Potter.  If an author just seems to assume that his book is one of them, he will probably seem clueless.

6.  When you’re describing your story, focus on what matters…

  • Interesting traits about main characters (like personality and important background details)
  • Goals of main character(s)
  • Critical choices of main character(s)
  • Obstacles/antagonists
  • Character development arc(s)– how do the main characters change over the course of the book or series?

7.  …and DON’T focus on inconsequential details.

  • Minor demographic traits (typically height, weight, eye color and hair color, etc).
  • Side-characters.  As much as possible, focus on the mains.  If the sides are more interesting than the mains, you have a problem.
  • Unnecessary world-building details.  If your fantasy world has six castes, please don’t tell us what all six are.  Focus on what we need to understand the thrust of the story (perhaps just the caste of the main character and the villain?).
  • Superpowers.  They’re not nearly as interesting or important as the goal(s) the hero will use them to attain.  I wouldn’t recommend spending more than 1-2 sentences on a superhero’s powers.

8.  Please don’t bother telling them how much your friends/family love your writing. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t matter.  Publishing professionals are a lot more experienced in this field than your friends.  Otherwise you’d probably be submitting to your friends.

9.  Always behave professionally. Here are some common mistakes.

  • Do not call editors or agents unless they have expressly asked you to.
  • Most editors and agents will Google you before offering you a contract, so make sure that you’re representing yourself professionally online.  (For example, if an author repeatedly complains on a blog about how awful the publishing industry is or how inept a negative review is, that suggests the author may hard to work with).
  • Please do not give your readers more information than they need to know.  In particular, please do not share your medical/psychiatric or criminal history with strangers unless it’s highly relevant to the project.  Double-fail: when writers erroneously suggest they have psychiatric or criminal issues.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “How to Communicate with Agents and Editors”

  1. Jayon 20 Nov 2009 at 7:18 am

    ’1. The only goal of your submission is to convince a publishing professional that your novel or comic book is likely to sell thousands of copies. Nothing else matters.’

    Which is why I stopped trying to get published a loooooooooooong time ago :P.

  2. Asayaon 20 Nov 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Really? I relish the challenge.

  3. B. Macon 20 Nov 2009 at 6:15 pm

    If your main goal is getting published/making a living as an author, you have to generate substantial sales. However, some people need more substantial sales than others. A novelist may be able to clear his advance on 5000 sales (which means the sales were good enough to meet expectations), but a scientific textbook author would probably be thrilled with 5000 sales. With a 10% royalty, a novelist makes about $1 per paperback (whereas the textbook royalties might be $20 per sale).

    This means that novelists face a daunting task. If you’re the sort of person that takes a year (or more) to write novels, you have to sell a LOT of copies to eke out a living. Tens of thousands.

    If you’re one of the super-prolific authors that cranks out 3-4 novels a year, then you might be able to survive on 5000 copies a book. (The good news is that I would imagine that sales tend to rise over an author’s career, because your pool of repeat readers grows from one book to the next).

    I would say that the first step to becoming a successful novelist is getting a day job. No lie.

  4. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 23 Nov 2009 at 7:25 pm

    “An experienced author can pitch a concept…”

    I imagine that, even for an experienced author, it would be easier just to finish the manuscript, then pitch. When when pitching a concept, it’s likely to change over the course of the book being written.

    Say an author wrote book one in a trilogy about Alice and Bob, and pitched the concept of them fighting demonic invaders for the second one, but then decided that they would fight ghosts instead. Then the concept has changed, and I don’t know much about it, but wouldn’t the editor be a little PO’ed that they didn’t get the book about demons?

  5. B. Macon 23 Nov 2009 at 10:27 pm

    In most cases, I don’t think the editor would mind if it changed. They understand that writing a book is an organic process. In fact, I think it’s almost expected that a series will evolve over years. As long as you don’t pull some wacky genre-shifting, like having your Harry Potter battle space aliens in book 2, you should be okay.

    If your editor is concerned that your readers won’t be as excited about ghosts as demons, he’d probably be willing to work with you if you had a track-record of turning out works that sold pretty well.

  6. Shellon 06 Mar 2010 at 7:03 pm

    I have a question for anyone who knows about this or can direct me to an easy source. Or, if someone knows how to better phrase my questions.

    What are the copyright laws now on web content? What does the web consider to be “published”? And just because its published, does that make it copyrighted (by Internet standards)?

    Is there an extent to which posted artwork or writing (to a web site) is protected without having the work registered with the Library of Congress?
    Provided that your work is not registered with the L.C. (or whatever other legal forms of copyright there are for different media), if you mention your original titles and character names, or etc., in an online artist’s description, personal blog, or in a forum in general, is that legal proof that they’re yours…or can someone lawfully take your names and titles and use them…a.k.a steal them?

  7. Beccaon 06 Mar 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Hmm… I’m pretty sure that just posting something qualifies as publication, yes. And I’m also fairly certain that legal proof that something is your’s is not difficult. If you ever got in a position where you’d have to sue (which is unlikely; it’s a long shot that a plagarist would make money off something you wrote), just possessing the original documents on your computer is enough to prove ownership. That’s what I was told once-upon-a-time, anyway, and that’s basically how I look at it.

  8. B. Macon 06 Mar 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Hello, Shell! If you are an American writer, I’d like to direct you to the US Copyright Office, which says

    When is my work protected?
    Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

    Do I have to register with your office to be protected?
    No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration.”

    I hope that helps! However, as always, please note that I am not a lawyer and that my publishing experience (such as it is) does not extend to legal disputes.

    “If you mention your original titles and character names, or etc., in an online artist’s description, personal blog, or in a forum in general, is that legal proof that they’re yours…or can someone lawfully take your names and titles and use them…a.k.a steal them?”

    I don’t know if it would be lawful, but realistically I think it’s very likely that they’d get away with it. The issue is money: does protecting a name matter enough to you that you’d hire a lawyer? Probably not. Unless you’re a big-name author or publisher, you probably don’t have any character names worth thousands of dollars. Nor do I think the case would be easy to win, particularly if the name is generic enough that two people might have genuinely come up with it on their own. However, if someone rips off your story in an unusually brazen fashion (like presenting passages of your story as his own) a letter to the publisher explaining your case should be sufficient.

  9. Shellon 07 Mar 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Ah. Thank you, Becca and B. Mac.

    My question comes from my observation of the competition, that “he who is first to the publisher laughs all the way to the bank,” regardless of who had the idea first. So, I just want to be careful what I just openly share, and avoid unwittingly giving away “stuff” (whatever it is) to someone with better and quicker resources than I do. That’s mainly for if I talk about it in a post, not if I’ve submitted a document that fully utilizes the names, terms, what have you…which I assume would be respected by viewers in most cases.

    My main concern is about material I couldn’t easily change even if I had to, like a name or term that is integral to the story and wouldn’t be any good if I had to call it something else.

  10. B. Macon 07 Mar 2010 at 7:18 pm

    “He who is first to the publisher laughs all the way to the bank.” That’s not necessarily true. I think it depends on how much the thief is making off with. If it’s a single name or something else he can plausibly claim he came up with on his own, he can probably publish it on his own (either before or after you). Unless one of you has enough money to take the case to court, that’s the end of it.

    However, if he’s actually ripped off your manuscript in a major way,it doesn’t matter whether he beats you to a publisher. It’s hard to express how screwed he is without profanity, so please fill in the blanks on your own. He is absolutely ***-****ed. ****ed up the **** and down the ****. Somebody that submits passages of somebody else’s writing as his own will gush blood out of every **** after getting ****-****ed by his own publisher. With a flaming ****.

    It is considerably easier to prove that somebody has ripped off a passage of your writing than a name. You just need to prove to his publisher that you wrote it first. If you have a copy saved from many years ago, that would probably be sufficient to raise substantial doubt. The notes you’ve assembled along the way will probably help. Unlike in the case of two authors sharing one character name, a plagiarist cannot plausibly claim “I came up with it separately!” The publisher will ditch the plagiarist because he has exposed them to substantial legal liabilities and is totally unprofessional.

    “My main concern is about material I couldn’t easily change even if I had to, like a name or term that is integral to the story and wouldn’t be any good if I had to call it something else.”

    Hmm. Personally, I’m very doubtful that there is ANY term an author could come up with that is so integral to a story that it could not be replaced. However, if you feel that replacing the term would be too difficult to contemplate, then maybe not posting it would be better for your peace of mind.

  11. Delphineon 17 May 2014 at 3:48 am

    Does a race/ethnical group of the writer matter?

  12. Mynaon 17 May 2014 at 9:04 am

    @Delphine: I think that would only matter if the main characters share that race/ethnic group. If you’re Southeast Asian and writing a story about Southeast Asians then it might be good to mention so the publishers know that you know what you’re talking about, etc.

  13. B. McKenzieon 17 May 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Delphine: “Does a race/ethnic group of the writer matter?” I don’t know anything about the work in question, but I’m guessing probably not, especially for fiction. I feel it’s much more important how interesting your plot and main characters are.

    If I’m correct in speculating that your authorial bio is not a major selling point for this work, I’d recommend focusing exclusively on the story when doing your pitch.

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